I don’t like the term “social distancing.” I understand and completely agree with the need for physical distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus and keep people, especially those with elevated risks, as safe as possible.
But the last thing we need right now is increased social distance from each other. Indeed, I would argue that social distance is part of what got us here, and a very large part of why the COVID-19 pandemic will be as bad as it will be in the U.S.
We’ve lived for the last half century with an ideological narrative that proclaims individualism über Alles, that defines any social obligation to our fellow human beings as an unacceptable infringement on liberty, that declares there is no such thing as the common good, and that government is bad by definition. As a result, corporate and government elites have starved, denigrated, and decimated the public sector and its capacity to respond to routine infrastructure needs, let alone to crises like the one we face now. And of course, they have fought tooth and nail — to this very day — to deny the idea that healthcare is a human right and to protect for-profit healthcare at all costs.
So now we find ourselves at the outset of a pandemic, without the capacity to adequately test people; without adequate medical resources; a catastrophic economic crisis; with a narcissistic sociopath as president, enabling and enabled by a party whose only agenda is maximizing white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, capitalist power; and an opposition party (I use that term loosely) whose progressive imagination (again, I use the term loosely) extends no further than calling for the military to take over management of the crisis.
Like all so-called natural disasters, the coronavirus pandemic is made exponentially worse by appalling social inequality and government neglect, both nurtured in the delusional belief that it is possible to screw the poor, the weak, and the marginalized without eventually screwing everyone. For sure, it is those on the short end of the distribution of economic and social power who will suffer the most — from incarcerated people unable to physically distance themselves from others to refugees turned back at the border, from workers laid off (while industries are bailed out) to all those who cannot afford healthcare and front-line healthcare workers given inadequate protections — but unlike us humans, the virus will not discriminate and it will move from a crowded jail into the homes of correction officers and then into the grocery stores where they shop, and on from there.
For Lent this year, I decided to give up limits on my imagination. Let me share a glimpse into this liberating journey with you:
- What if housing were free? Rents, mortgages cancelled; the empty extra homes of the rich given to those without any homes.
- What if healthcare were available to everyone equally, free of charge? Testing and treatment for anyone who needs it.
- What if manufacturing industries were retooled to build respirators and N95 masks and other essential medical supplies?
- What if Amazon’s logistics operation were repurposed to get the respirators and masks to the hospitals and communities where they are needed?
- What if Amazon warehouse workers were given the necessary protective equipment to safely ship that equipment, had their shifts reduced so they could rest and stay healthy, and unemployed service-sector workers enlisted along side them so that everyone could contribute to the effort to provide necessary supplies, no one was overworked, and everyone was equally and adequately compensated?
- What if supermarkets were communally owned and farmers, delivery workers, and groceries worked together to make sure everyone had food?
- What if we did all that and suddenly/finally realized that money is made up and jobs are mechanisms of extortion that people agree to in order to feed their families; and what we really need is each other?
Pie in the sky, you say? Of course it is. But when you consider the spectacular failure of capitalism to provide for human needs, I would say it’s long past time for us to rethink what’s possible and start demanding what’s needed.